Graded on a Curve: Procol Harum,
Procol Harum

Remembering Procol Harum bassist Alan Cartwright.Ed.

Oh groovy of groovies! Procol Harum MADE the Summer of Love with their immortal debut single “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” If I recall correctly John Lennon used to pump it out the windows of his psychedelic Rolls Royce while driving stoned immaculate down happening Carnaby Street, and why not? The sound is heavy as Bach, the lyrics are, like, deep, man, and listening to it is like slow dancing your way across the bottoms of tangerine seas while the sun of the real world beats on the waves above you a million, trillion miles away.

John Lennon again: “You play it when you take some acid and wooooo.”

A couple of months later Procol Harum gave us their debut LP (and one of the finest albums of 1967), Procol Harum. Released by my favorite label, Regal Zonophone, Procol Harum is every bit as groovy as “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which didn’t make it onto the U.K. release but was included on the U.S. one. Procol Harum can be divided into heavy tunes and pop lightweights but it doesn’t have a loser on it unless you include the silly “Good Captain Clack,” which the folks at Regal Zonophone had the good sense to jettison from the U.S. version in favor of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

People talk about Procol Harum being a slice of proto-prog and I suppose they’re right; organist Matthew Fisher liked his dead composers every bit as much as Keith Emerson. But–but!–he never lowered himself to slavish imitation but instead alchemized the sounds of all those defunct powdered wig-wearing geniuses in such a way that you never feel like you’re being forced to inhale some moribund Beethoven’s classical gas.

Take “Repent Walpurgis.” It may have been built on the moldering corpses of Charles-Marie Widor and Johann Sebastian Bach but what I hear is one cool instrumental; sure, Fisher waxes classical on the organ, but he’s playing it with soul, and soul is what differentiates this baby from your typical ELP Mussorgsky plod. The proof? His organ sounds right at home with Robin “Bridge of Sighs” Trower’s truly astounding guitar caterwaul. Fisher’s more playful, too; his organ on the jaunty “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence” may fall under the label “neoclassical,” but it’s also a lot of fun.

Procol Harum put a very airy “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” touch (dig that tambourine!) on the aforementioned “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence,” go all psychedelic on the marching, charging, word-happy “Kaleidoscope,” and wax “Nights in White Satin” on the heroic “Conquistador,” with its lonely stallion and no place to unwind. This is a far less portentous version than the later live one with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra; Fisher dances on the organ with both feet, Dave Knights lays down some very funkadelic bass, and why Procol Harum choose to release the somnolent and Dylanesque “Homburg” instead of this baby as a follow-up single to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is beyond me.

“A Christmas Camel” is a very heavy goof on Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” and boasts Gary Brooker intoning some far-out lyrics by Keith “I’m the Bernie Taupin of Procol Harum!” Reid along the lines of “My Amazon six-triggered bride/Now searching for a place to hide” and “While some Arabian sheik most grand/Impersonates a hot-dog stand.” In short it’s a hoot, as is the great “Something Following Me,” in which the dreadful something following poor Gary is his own tombstone! It’s followed him to 42nd Street! He bites into it at a deli! His dentist screams because now the damn thing’s in his mouth! And here thought he left it at home! And when you’re done guffawing you can sit back and admire the way Trower spits guitar bile all over it!

“Cerdes (Outside the Gates of)” has a Traffic feel, only heavier; Trower tosses off a whole slew of nasty guitar licks while Fisher gets down with his bluesy self on organ, Knights walks the plank on bass, and Brooks somehow manages to sound very serious while singing about two-pronged unicorns playing rhinestone flugelhorns. “Salad Days (Are Here Again)” is sad and elegiac and beautiful; Brooker may be smiling but he’s feeling very low, and I hear the entire career of Steely Dan laid out in the melody and Fisher’s lovely vamping on organ. As for “Mabel,” it’s a giddy music hall throwaway in the tradition of Paul McCartney and the Kinks; Brooker’s eating fried chicken on fresh-mowed sand, a lot of crazy kazoos and other wacky instruments wazoo away, and it sounds like the band hired an entire asylum to sing back-up.

For me, Procol Harum is THE SOUND of ‘67 in swinging London Town; it’s a holy goof, an unholy concatenation of groovy sounds and surrealistic lyrics, and the perfect wayback machine for anybody who wants to experience what it felt like to be free and stoned and grokking the Hyde Park scene during England’s very own version of the Summer of Love. 1969’s A Salty Dog may be the better album, but Procol Harum is definitely a whiter shade of pale.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text